How We Learned to Sound Like Our Superiors, and Why We Should Write Our Own Scripts

I have made a mistake in communication. I make many mistakes. But this particular error, in how I talk, affects my livelihood, because I make my living through the skillful use of language.

When I started to give speeches much more often, and professionally, as many as 100 in a year, every now and then for a flattering honorarium, I decided I would make the utmost effort to stop saying “um,” and “uh,” and “like,” and “you know.” As a lawyer, I have the opportunity to read transcripts of myself arguing and interjecting. I cannot help but cringe. I do not sound as good as I could. Even if I was confident I had been articulate, even verging on eloquent, the verbatim record shows anything but. Like almost all of us not working off a script, I speak in sentence fragments, run-on sentences, and with every type of misstatement and gaffe.

Some years ago I started to use an outline, numbering my arguments, and to try to form my presentation into paragraphs. I wished to project grammar and punctuation so clear you could hear it in the air. I hoped to talk as I wrote, to write as I talked. Accordingly on paper (or the screen), I edited to eliminate colloquialisms, even contractions. My prose became more mannered. It gained structure. But it lost a natural flow. I have developed a unique style. That isn’t necessarily a self-compliment. (The opening ”I’d like to make three points,” leads to parody.)

I succeeded. Yet that made me seem too “polished.” People have criticized me using that explicit description.

I am tempted to reply, “You know how much effort it takes to do that?”

I realized, however, that I have done what social strivers have been compelled to do all along. I have “hyper corrected.” The servant who is ambitious has more formal elocution than the master who is in a position to not care. My parents, who were immigrants, displayed a practiced penmanship that was a sign they were not assimilated. Trying too much signals subordinate social status. Our superiors demand the imitation they then mock. Yet that is why the colonies end up producing such great literature. Anyone who has to interpret and translate for her elders or inside her own head is conscious and deliberate about every utterance and phrase. That mindfulness should be cultivated. It is no shame.

The latest Nobel laureate in literature is the Anglo-Asian Kazuo Ishiguro — properly speaking, the British Ishiguro. His English is more English than the English. That should be no surprise. For it is the result of observation. In his Booker Prize winning novel, Remains of the Day, later made into an elegant movie starring Anthony Hopkins and Emma Thompson, the former plays the most proper butler, in a World War II manor disgraced, it eventually is revealed, by Nazi sympathies. Ishiguro created a character who was an English archetype. In the story, when the protagonist drives his former employer’s luxury motorcar through the peacetime countryside, he is so dignified he is mistaken for a member of the gentry. I suppose that is the aspiration for an outsider as for a subordinate.

Perhaps because, in kinship with Ishiguro’s butler, I am more uptight than relaxed, I expunged a specific vocabulary from my own rhetoric: curses and obscenities. I rarely swear. Even when I am alone, I do not do that. Thus on the rare occasion when I blurt out “f*ck,” it is all the more meaningful for being out of character. In the cult classic movie Idiocracy, about a comic dystopia, that expletive has become simply an emphasis. Such a notion constitutes only a bit of exaggeration of our reality. That is what the best satire does, extrapolate from our attitudes to expose them.

Yet I have reconsidered. I wonder if I should introduce profanity into my vocabulary. It is normal. People who study these matters, such as the practice of “code switching,” have concluded that cussing has at least two positive effects. First, curses relieve stress for the speaker. I likely would feel better if I swore. Emotions need to be released, not suppressed, or they will become dangerously concentrated. Second, obscenity makes a person appear more authentic to an audience. I give the impression of being too calculating if I don’t do what other people do. Respect is intrinsically mutual: they prefer I identify with them, if they are to identify with me.

Spontaneity and sincerity require that we not be bound by internal restraints. People have complimented me for being an excellent orator. I am honored. But they want to confirm I prepared my address especially for them on that occasion. Otherwise it is a sham. Experience only increases the challenge.

As I strive for balance, I think that those of us who perceive we are at the margins unconsciously do our best to mimic those who take for granted they define the mainstream. The most powerful idea is the very belief in ideas — that they matter, that they change, that words are real. I am convinced I can persuade other people, and they me. That ability to carry on a conversation cannot be taken for granted.

Each of us has a voice. We ought to use it. The more we do, the more we improve not only our selves but our community.

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